Trusting Your Intuition: When To Listen To Your Gut -- And When Not To

07/10/2013 09:14 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015
Illustration: Lara Harwood

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That little voice that nudges you when you're stuck between two choices? It's real.

By Helen Fisher, PhD

You're faced with a difficult decision, and suddenly you feel the right answer in your gut. But while intuition may seem to arise from some mysterious inner source, it's actually a form of unconscious reasoning -- one that's rooted in the way our brains collect and store information.

As you accumulate knowledge -- whether it's about what books your spouse likes or how to play chess -- you begin to recognize patterns. Your brain unconsciously organizes these patterns into blocks of information -- a process the late social scientist Herbert Simon, PhD, called chunking. Over time your brain chunks and links more and more patterns, then stores these clusters of knowledge in your long-term memory. When you see a tiny detail of a familiar design, you instantly recognize the larger composition -- and that's what we regard as a flash of intuition.

This elaborate brain circuitry likely evolved so our forebears could size up a person or a situation quickly. Our female ancestors, in particular, needed this skill: They had to tune in to their infants to enable them to survive. And this helps explain why women today have an edge when it comes to reading people. So listen to your gut feelings instead of brushing them aside. Your intuition may not always steer you right, but it can be a useful first step in decision-making.

Listen to your intuition when you're ...

Doing something you're experienced in. Intuition is really learned expertise in disguise. So if you've played tennis your whole life, go with your instinct on the court instead of thinking through each stroke.

Considering getting a second opinion. "Listening to your body's signals can help prevent bigger health problems," says Judith Orloff, MD, a psychiatrist at UCLA and author of Second Sight. If your doctor dismisses a nagging symptom as "nothing serious" but you're still convinced there's something wrong -- go with your hunch.

Shopping for a home. Don't just endlessly analyze the financials; listen to your gut. Studies have found that purchasers are more satisfied with a big-budget item when the decision is made incorporating unconscious thought rather than by conscious deliberation alone.

Let your head decide when you're ...

Sniffing out a lie. "There are no easily detectable signs that indicate lying, so even if you're adept at reading people, you can't infer dishonesty based on the other person's gestures or behavior," says David Myers, PhD, author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils.

Hiring someone for a job. If there's a contest between your positive gut feeling and what work samples and recommendations tell you, forget your gut. "Your intuition may be based on something superficial -- like whether the candidate reminds you of a close friend—that has nothing to do with performance," says Myers. -- Lauren Dzubow

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